Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The NL West: Tough and About to Get Tougher

The National League division that registered more victories than any other in Season 7 looks to be even stronger in Season 8. An always very tough Tacoma Pixies club -- world champs in Season 6 -- and ever improving teams in LA, Tucson and Fresno set the stage for a spirited West Division race.

Here are team by team capsules, in order of their Season 7 finish (w/Season 7 records and Season 8 predictions in parentheses):

Tacoma Pixies (Season 7/102-60, Season 8 Proj./95-67)

The Pixies' three top attributes are:

1. Donnie Brown (W-L 27-7, Inn. 310.1 WHIP 0.92 ERA 2.35)
2. Donnie Brown
3. Donnie Brown

While All Universe Brown is starting to get a little long in the tooth, he seems to just be getting better. We see no reason for that to change in Season 8. His numbers will be impressive and he'll compete for another Cy Young Award.

Other Pixie starters pale in comparison to Brown, so a strong bullpen, anchored by Greg Lewis, Jim Walker and Delanor Deveraux, will be busy and need to keep games in hand so the Pixies big bats can make the difference.

Speaking of bats, oh yeah, they get big wood on the ball, with some of the best power in the NL.

3B Cristobal Quixote, and OFs Scot Rossy, Joaquin Carerras and John Sveum all can bring it with superior power and average.

And Gold Glove 2B Albert Russell is a human vacuum cleaner.

Despite a slight question mark regarding the Pixies starting rotation after Brown, this team remains solid and should be considered the favorite to win the West again. It will be a push, however, for them to regain the World Series title they relinquished last season.

Los Angeles Knights (S7/93-69, S8 Proj./89-73)

The Knights sport two of the West's best starters, 18-game winner Luis Johnson and 14-game winner Courtney Fullmer, and arguably the league's premier closer in Fireman of the Year Willis Little, who was 30 of 30 last season in save opportunities. The rest of the Knights' bullpen is reliable, but its 3, 4 and 5 starters are slight question marks heading into the season. Example: free agent pick-up Zach Roundtree brings his 6-21 record from last season with him (admittedly, he toiled for an awful Fargo team in the AL) and will need to radically improve to help the Knights compete for the division title or hold on second place. LA can only hope that Roundtree benefits from not facing DHs.

As for hitting. LA has it in spades, starting with perennial crusher 1B Sherman Lawton, Silver Slugger 3B Derek Jordan, 2B Alex Ortiz and OF John Henley. CF Wendell Ball's 50+ SBs don't hurt the cause either.

So, if the Knights new SPs pull through, the team has the hitting to win it all. A very tough club, no matter.

Tucson Electric Lizards (S7/84-78, S8 Proj./76-86)

Gone is super-starter Ted Walsh, dispatched to the East's Chicago Boomtown, as if they needed him, coming off a 90-win season. Walsh was a losing-streak stopper and innings eater who will be missed sorely -- but not by West teams that had to face him multiple times each season. The Lizzies got some excellent prospects for Walsh, but two of them are skedded for the minors this season and the third, starter Darren Burke, has been average at the ML level (save for his Gold Glove last year). In fact, only one of the Lizards five starters had a winning record last year. That says a lot. The Lizard bull-pen is certainly adequate.

As for hitting, the Lizards have some of it, though not at the level of the other three teams in the division. All-Star SS Tyrone Beltre is a crusher who hits for average and Andres Carrasco is the total package with the bat and on the basepaths, with more than 50 steals last year. A guy who just might have a break-out year is 3B Nicholas Bennett, who scouts out at a 90 total and possesses all the tools. Nonetheless, a very improved Fresno Farmhands team is likely to leap-frog the Lizards and send them to the cellar.

Fresno Farmhands (S7/78-84, S8 Proj./90-72)

The perennial cellar-dwellers from California's Central Valley are hell-bent on competing for the division title this year and were super active on the trade/free-agent market. The 'Hands picked up two Season 7 All-Stars, CF bopper Luis Benitez and SS Sammy Bonilla, to beef up their power and defense. That duo will complement existing stars LF Ebenezer Sexson, RF Denny Hammond and C Sammy Herrera, who is still one of the ML's top defensive backstops and due to rebound from a mediocre season -- for him -- at the plate. Slugging/high average hitting 2B Tomas Ontiveros comes over from rival Tucson and gives the Farmhands another monster bat.

Also joining the club are two strong free-agent starters, 20-game winner Gary Hughes and 15-game winner Hector Schmidt. They join a rotation including up-and-coming Cameron Carter, who was 18-6 last season while climbing from AA to the ML level, and 14-game winner Nolan Wallace. The Farmhands' bullpen is adequate. Their biggest question mark will be whether former All-Star starter Derek O' Malley can adapt to the role of closer. We shall see.

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